Robert Rauschenberg – Untitled (American Flag, Enough Is Enough), 1980
The American torture report is out as of yesterday. I am an American.
My instinct, being a fairly strict Christian who for some reason still expects justice, is to clench my teeth against the inevitable onslaught of international condemnation that will come, justly, in the next few weeks and months, from intellectuals around the world, but beneath that instinct is the awful suspicion that it won’t be nearly enough when it comes, which leaves us to our own devices.
It’s much easier to start a war by agitating for it than to stop a war by agitating against it. The Left is as filled with nitwits as the Right, irrespective of whether or not those nitwits are correct, and one song the parrots of liberalism, especially the gray ones, love to sing is a classic about how back during the Vietnam War we had A Real Peace Movement. My point here is that Vietnam lasted 19 and a half years and that self-flagellation isn’t widely acknowledged as an effective form of corporal punishment for the same reason surgeons aren’t allowed to operate on family members; it’s just not nearly as efficient as having somebody else do it.
This, after all, is the sort of thing the people who devote themselves to international justice cite when they advocate for real, elaborate censure: for sanctions and trade embargos and blockades. None of that is going to happen to the United States of America.
For the people of this country, that is a good thing. Sanctions are awful. They destroy infrastructure more slowly and more painfully than a war, and just as effectively. How terrible it is to live in North Korea, and Myanmar, and Cuba, and Zimbabwe, and not merely because they are ruled by despots. And yet it’s the people—us, me, you—who are guilty.
So we must sit here, and learn how to live with ourselves, and that is going to take some doing. It might be a worthwhile time to reflect on the history of the long 20th century; how it was headed into decline until we entered the second World War and how that war never really ended, in a certain light; it merely changed theaters every now and then. Less than five years between V-J Day and the day the KPA crossed the 38th Parallel; less than 18 months between the signing of the Armistice at the end of the Korean War and the arrival of the Military Assistance Advisory Group in Vietnam. It all gets so boring after that, like a genealogy in the Bible. Iran begat Nicaragua, Lebanon begat Libya and Syria, Afghanistan begat Iraq and Afghanistan the Second, and Iraq begat Iraq, father of torture.
Somewhere along the way we even stopped calling them wars—”police actions,” in the words of President Truman, as though burning whole Korean villages to death with napalm was simply the international equivalent of a traffic ticket, scaled up so as to deter nations, rather than individuals, from jaywalking. Recently we’ve made our presidents kings, giving them carte blanche to drop bombs and invade foreign countries half a world away without any approval from our representative leaders, although to be fair, those leaders are craven and stupid, as eager to deal death remotely as their constituents are to reelect them to tenth and twelfth terms. It is our fault, was our fault, will be our fault tomorrow.
So let us be clear: the torture report is very horrible, but it is only horrible in its specifics, and those specifics are not new. We understood five years ago that our leaders had given not just special permission but direct orders to their subordinates to frighten a man using “insects placed in a confinement box.” We, the people, are horrible in aggregate.
It is easy to rage at and, I’m sure, fantasize about revenging our bruised sense of propriety on the people who did these things directly; that revenge has already been taken, by the things themselves. The men and women who drowned and revived and drowned prisoners cried while they did it; you and I will sleep soundly and they will have the nightmares.
There are, of course, monsters here. Lots of them. John Yoo, the architect of our torture program, has already gone on record praising it in the face of these stale revelations; he has been rewarded for his valor with an endowed chair at a well-regarded university in a pleasant city in California. Some people may be prosecuted over this; others may even go to jail, but he will almost certainly not be among them. Many of us have had the temerity to act surprised by this report and, depending on how elaborately we want to mime shock and disappointment, a trial could come of it. If it does, the people who suffer will almost certainly be the people closest to the offenses, the ones whose internal lives already cannot get much worse.
Our economy works, in many ways, because we sponsor murder on a national level. Defense contractors have theme park rides at Disney World. It is shameful. It is unjust, and I’m saying this to you right now: punishment is a tool of the cowardly and the ashamed. The proper response to this kind of cruelty is to comfort those afflicted by it and not to do it again. It will not end unless we want it to.
I want it to. Setting things on fire stops being glorious fairly early in life, once you realize that fire hurts and that nothing unburns. We cannot will the injuries of the people our country violated, physically, in so many humiliating ways, to reverse themselves. We can, perhaps, will ourselves to stop hurting them, if we are willing to rise nationally above the level of spoiled children. I hope we do.